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Towards zero emissions: a roadmap for the health sector

A road map to guide the health sector to zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) has been launched today by the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) and Global Green and Healthy Hospitals (GGHH) (Pacific Region).

‘The Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization: a navigational tool for achieving zero emissions with climate resilience and health equity’ was produced by Health Care Without Harm and Arup.

The report provides a road map for the global health sector to fully decarbonise in an equitable way in order to reverse the current trajectory of global warming and avoid its potentially devastating consequences.

Below Jennifer Doggett highlights some of the report’s key findings and its recommendations for action in seven key areas.


Jennifer Doggett and Healthcare without Harm write:

Earlier this week the Scientific American announced that it would start using the term “climate emergency” in its coverage of climate change stating: The planet is heating up way too fast. It’s time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.

This reflects similar calls to action from other science and health groups, including the World Health Organization, which has called climate change as “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century” and identified the multiple serious ways in which climate change will impact upon our planet and its inhabitants.

These include: massive coastal flooding, famine, widespread species extinction, the increased potential for devastating pandemics, and massive forced migration as large areas of the planet become uninhabitable for humans.

These changes would have devastating health and social impacts, including the profound undermining of health infrastructure, the potential collapse of some health systems, and a growing burden of disease among much of the world’s population.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 special report on global warming warned that to avoid these catastrophic impacts, we need to limit global average temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

This requires us to reach net-zero emissions globally by 2050.

Source: The Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization, Healthcare without Harm

The role of the health sector

The health sector makes a major contribution to the climate crisis and therefore has an important role to play in resolving it.

In September 2019 a report from Health Care Without Harm and Arup found that health care’s climate footprint is equivalent to 4.4% of global net emissions, equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 514 coal-fired power plants.

In fact, if the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet.

In Australia, our health sector annually produces 30-35 megatonnes of GHGs, or five to seven percent of Australia’s total. Our healthcare per capita GHGs are the third highest of the 68 countries examined.

Meeting the Paris Agreement commitments will not be enough on its own to reduce the health system’s carbon footprint.

This is why climate and health groups, including CAHA and the GGHH, are calling for global and national healthcare leadership to respond to the climate crisis with prevention and preparedness, while simultaneously meeting global health and social justice outcomes, such as universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Source: The Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization, Healthcare without Harm

Pathways and actions

The combustion of coal, oil, and gas accounts for 84 percent percent of all of healthcare’s climate emissions.

The roadmap therefore focuses on reducing emissions from fossil fuels to zero and sets out the following three main interrelated pathways to achieve this aim:

  • Decarbonise healthcare delivery and build resilience
  • Decarbonise the healthcare supply chain
  • Accelerate decarbonisation in the wider society and economy.

Spanning and connecting these pathways are seven high-impact actions that the sector must take to transform healthcare into a decarbonised, climate-resilient sector.

These areas are:

  • Powering healthcare with 100 percent renewable energy
  • Investing in zero emissions buildings and infrastructure
  • Transitioning to zero emissions transport
  • Providing healthy and sustainably grown food
  • Producing low-carbon pharmaceutical products
  • Implementing circular and sustainable healthcare waste management
  • Improving effectiveness of the health system.

More detail on the three pathways and seven action areas can be found in this section of the roadmap.

Source: The Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization, Healthcare without Harm

Growing advocacy

The road map builds on growing advocacy for climate action from the health sector. Last month, the Australian Medical Association and Doctors for the Environment Australia called on the Australian health sector to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2040, with an interim target of 80 percent by 2030.

This follows a decade of advocacy by CAHA and the GGHH to build a powerful Australian health sector movement for climate action and sustainable healthcare.

In launching the report, CAHA Sustainable Healthcare Program Manager and GGHH Pacific Region Coordinator, Carol Behne said:

Australian states and territories have committed to net zero emissions by 2050, but do not have clear plans to get the health sector to net zero emissions, as the National Health Service in the UK have done. The latest science shows we must get to net zero emissions much earlier. As one of the biggest polluting sectors in Australia, it is critical that the health sector plays its part in cutting emissions to tackle climate change, the biggest health challenge we face.”

This road map shows how the health sector can achieve zero emissions and uphold its moral imperative to ‘do no harm’. Many health institutions in Australia are working to reduce their emissions, and this road map provides a comprehensive guide for how to rapidly scale this up. But we must see government policy to guide and help accelerate these efforts.

The Global Road Map comes at a time when ambitious carbon reduction targets are being announced by Australian health services, like Hunter New England Local Health District, Ambulance Victoria and UnitingCare Queensland. We want to see a national commitment to implementing the Road Map strategies across all health services .”

Source: The Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization, Healthcare without Harm

A win – win proposition

The road map highlights the synergies between reducing carbon emissions and achieving other health and social equity goals.

These include the use of climate action as a preventative health measure that can help reduce the burden of disease by reducing pollution, while also helping finance better healthcare delivery.

For example, one study conducted by the Mexican government found that by meeting the country’s nationally determined contributions for carbon emissions (under the Paris Agreement) and generating 43 percent of electricity from clean sources by 2030, air pollution would decrease with a consequent reduction in air pollution related diseases.

This would deliver savings of  USD $2.7 billion in healthcare costs, equivalent to 41 percent of the Health Ministry’s annual budget in 2019.

Source: The Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization, Healthcare without Harm

Health sector leadership

If followed, the road map would deliver a direct reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of keeping over 2.7 billion barrels of oil in the ground each year.

By uniting the health sector around efforts to address the climate crisis, the road map could also influence more than its own footprint.

If healthcare development, growth, and investment can align with global climate goals, the 10 percent of the world economy that health care represents, together with its political clout at every level of government, as well as its ethical influence as a trusted communicator, mean that the sector could help provide leadership for a low-carbon, climate-smart, more equitable, and healthier future.

Judene Andrews is UnitingCare Queensland Manager, Environmental Sustainability. At the launch of the report she called on other health groups to adopt the road map and work towards a healthy, more equitable and greener world.

We are thrilled to see that this world-first zero emissions guide aligns with our ambitious targets, including improving energy efficiency, sourcing all electricity from renewable energy, and more. Action on climate change is crucial to protect health, and we encourage all Australian healthcare organisations to integrate the road map key actions into their sustainability plans.”


This article is published as part of our contribution to the global Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented collaboration involving hundreds of media outlets around the world. It is co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian

If you value our coverage of climate and health, please consider supporting our Patreon fundraising campaign, so we can provide regular, in-depth coverage of the health impacts of the climate crisis, taking a local, national and global approach. All funds raised will go to a dedicated fund to pay writers and editors to put a sustained focus on the health impacts of climate change. Please help us to produce stories that will inform the health sector, policy makers, communities, families and others about how best to respond to this public health crisis.

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